Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Goodness
This week Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of the year 5777. As a traditional new year’s greeting we wish each other L’shana tova, or may you have a year full of goodness. We don’t wish each other a happy new year but rather wish for a good year. With all the turmoil and mishegas (craziness) in the world around us it seems like an important time to consider the difference.
In one of his most memorable Rosh Hashanah sermons, my friend and now retired, Rabbi Les Gutterman indelibly seared into my brain the literal translation of L’shana tova and the distinction between happiness and goodness. He posed a very interesting question to the congregation which has stayed with me over the years. “What if our founding fathers had proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that our inalienable rights included life, liberty, and the pursuit of goodness instead of the pursuit of happiness? Would we be better off if we valued goodness above happiness? Rabbi Gutterman’s questions always make me think and this one was no different. I have been pondering his question and the difference between happiness and goodness ever since.
It seems to me that happiness is a state of mind and goodness is more of a state of being. Happiness is more inwardly focused and transient while goodness is more outwardly focused and a value or character trait that doesn’t come and go. I started listing words that come to mind for both happiness and goodness.
Happiness brings to mind satisfaction, pleasure, delight, contentment, and joy.
Goodness brings to mind kindness, generosity, beneficial, helpful, and character.
Happiness is more individually focused. What will make me happy? How can I make you happy? While not always the case happiness tends to be about receiving rather than giving. Goodness is more community focused. What will be most helpful to others? What charitable act or kindness can I provide to a neighbor or someone less fortunate in the community? To see the goodness in someone is to see one’s essence and strength.
Nothing against the pursuit of happiness but if it were possible to amend the Declaration of Independence I would advocate for asserting our inalienable rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of goodness.
If our society was based more on the value of goodness than individual happiness I think we would make more progress on the big societal issues of our time. We would treat each other with more respect and civility. We would make more progress in transforming important social systems including our health care, education and government systems. We would take our environmental stewardship responsibility more seriously. We would work even harder with a generosity of spirit to leave behind a better world for future generations.
Here’s to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of goodness. L’shana tova. May you have a year full of goodness.